El Salvador committing ‘systematic’ abuses in gang purge: Amnesty

Government has committed abuses such as torture, enforced disappearances in year-long gang crackdown, rights group says.

Soldiers arrive in Soyapango, El Salvador, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. The government of El Salvador sent 10,000 soldiers and police to seal off Soyapango, on the outskirts of the nation's capital Saturday to search for gang members. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
El Salvador's 'state of exception' to tackle gang violence has granted the government sweeping powers and suspended civil liberties [File: Salvador Melendez/AP Photo]

Authorities in El Salvador have committed “systematic” human rights abuses since launching a nationwide state of emergency last year to tackle gang violence, including torture and enforced disappearances, Amnesty International said.

The rights group said on Monday that the Salvadoran government’s “state of exception” – first declared in March 2022 by President Nayib Bukele and periodically renewed since then – also has resulted in widespread violations of due process.

“The deaths of 132 people in state custody, arbitrary detention, mass criminal prosecutions and the indiscriminate imprisonment of tens of thousands of people are incompatible with an effective, fair and lasting public security strategy,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

“The systematic violation of human rights and the dismantling of the rule of law are not the answer to the problems facing the country.”

Under the state of emergency, which was put in place after a deadly weekend of gang violence in the Central American nation, the government suspended certain civil liberties, including the right to a lawyer and the right to gather.

More than 66,000 people have been detained under the policy, and some Salvadoran families say their loved ones have been rounded up despite not being affiliated with gangs.

Rights groups and observers also have cautioned that the state of exception is eroding democracy and civil rights in El Salvador for a plan that may amount to a quick fix rather than a long-term solution to crime and gang activity.

Such criticism has done little, however, to deter Bukele, whose popularity has surged as the crackdown exerts pressure on networks of gangs that have brought violence and exploitation to many areas of the country for years.

In March, El Salvador extended the state of exception for the 12th time, giving the government wide discretion to make arrests, access private communications, and strip Salvadorans of their right to a lawyer.

The text of the legislative decree stated that the “war against gangs conducted by the government has allowed the Salvadoran population to feel a sense of security”.

Bukele also recently unveiled a new, mega-prison to hold people rounded up under the state of emergency. “This will be their new house, where they will live for decades, all mixed, unable to do any further harm to the population,” the president said in February.

On Monday, Amnesty International warned that Salvadorans “living in the most impoverished areas who have historically suffered the scourge of gangs” were being criminalised under the policy, while there is little transparency or recourse for those wrongfully imprisoned.

Human rights violations are being carried out in a “widespread and sustained” manner with the support of various branches of the state, the group said.

“We see with alarm how overcrowding and torture continue to claim the lives of innocent people, with the complicity of all the institutions that are supposed to uphold their rights,” said Guevara-Rosas.

“The dehumanization that thousands of unjustly imprisoned people are suffering is intolerable.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies